CD releases

Soft Light’, the new album from Basil Athanasiadis, is a fascinating mix of Greek and Japanese influences. Athanasiadis’ works are characterized by a strong visual identity, brought to life on this album by the ensemble Shonorities. Our CEO, Stephen Sutton, is “delighted to have signed a composer with such a unique and exotic blend of styles”.

The collection features a selection of seven works composed between 2003 and 2017. Despite their inevitable stylistic differences, all pieces are interconnected by means of a subtle unifying thread which explains the reason for their co-existence in this collection. Their convergence can be pinpointed in an overall subdued character, quietness, lack of thematic development and a common aesthetic direction relating to various elements of Japanese culture. From the early influences in Pale Views by a Kazuo Ishiguro’s novel to the remodelling of the structure of a Noh dance in For the Ice II and use of haiku or the employment of the Japanese shõ in The Cat in Love, Air Still and To the Touch, all works demonstrate common aesthetic characteristics consistent with my doctoral and post-doctoral research on the Japanese aesthetic of wabi-sabi.

After his first two CDs ‘Clouds That I Like’ (Sargasso SCD28067) and ‘Stray Cat’s Dream’ (Sargasso SCD28077), Basil Athanasiadis continues his exploration of the Japanese/Zen aesthetic concept of ‘Wabi-Sabi’, an ambiguous and complex principle roughly translatable as ‘simplicity, emptiness, humility, primitiveness, impermanence, unpretentiousness’. Japanese traditional instruments such as the shõ and the shakuhachi, are intrinsically connected to the Wabi-Sabi philosophy, infusing natural beauty into seemingly simple musical gestures, and, in Athanasiadis hands, become the perfect vehicles for a thoroughly contemporary musical investigation.

Another influence that infuses these recordings is the late composer Jonathan Harvey who met Basil in Tokyo and encouraged him to pursue his compositional goals. News of Harvey’s sad passing reached Basil while he was writing ‘Aura’ and is hence dedicated to him. Recorded in Tokyo by top-level Japanese and Western instrumentalists, all the works on this CD explore ideas of asymmetry, rhythmic disjunction between parts, emphasis on timbre and the lack of strong thematic presence or large scale climactic gestures. This does not mean that climaxes are avoided; they are simply not caused deliberately, or at least not used in their Western traditional sense. Instead, the accent gestures assume the role of the traditional climaxes. Their sparseness and brevity result in an inevitable shift of focus towards the present rather than the anticipation of future.

In the follow-up to his ‘Clouds That I Like’ album (Sargasso SCD28067), Greek composer Basil Athanasiadis continues his exploration of the Japanese/Zen aesthetic concept of ‘wabi-sabi’, an ambiguous and complex principle roughly translatable as ‘simplicity, emptiness, humility, primitiveness, impermanence, unpretentiousness’. Japanese traditional instruments such as the sho and the 20-stringed koto, are intrinsically connected to the wabi-sabi idea, infusing natural beauty into seemingly simple musical gestures, and, in Athanasiadis hands, become the perfect vehicles for a thoroughly contemporary musical investigation.Shortly after the Fukushima earthquake and nuclear disaster Athanasiadis received a two-year award from the Japanese Society for the Promotion of Science (JSPS) to support his Fellowship at the Tokyo University of the Arts and Music. As a result, these six compositions, recorded in Tokyo, feature some of the best Japanese virtuosos, including his wife, vocalist Shie Shoji. Despite the playfulness of some of the titles, this collection of pieces is suffused with bittersweet emotions that, like the wabi-sabi attitude, reveal the complexities found in the stillness of the human spirit.

A recording featuring works by the composer Basil Athanasiadis for combinations of Japanese and Western instruments mostly composed during his post-doctoral fellowship at the Tokyo University of Music and the Arts in Japan (2010-11). Although the Japanese culture has numerous aesthetic terms designed to describe as accurately as possible the governing principles of the artistic pantheon, one in particular seems to surpass the rest in terms of its complexity, associative multiplicity and ambiguity. Wabi sabi, essentially consisting of two individual terms (wabi and sabi), is a key aesthetic concept for the comprehension of the most fundamental principles of the traditional Japanese arts and music. Its study and its in-depth comprehension offers valuable answers to questions about the origin and function of simplicity, emptiness, incompleteness and imperfection, impermanence of structure, form and design often encountered in the Japanese arts. In 2004 Basil Athanasiadis started exploring wabi-sabi’s connection with Japanese instruments and its potential for contemporary music composition. The employment of Japanese traditional instruments such as the sho and the 20-stringed koto, help infuse the wabi-sabi sense of virtuosity and beauty into a contemporary music context.

Avaried selection of Christmas music, including the first recording of Basil Athanasiadis' Antiphon to Mary for mixed choir and organ, sung with true Christmas spirit by the superlative Wells Cathedral Choir.

New works for organ and choirs commissioned by Choir & organ magazine including the second recording of Basil Athanasiadis' Antiphon to Mary for mixed choir and organ. Supplied with the Mar./Apr. 2009 (v. 17, no. 2) issue of Choir & organ. The Chapel Choir of Selwyn College, Cambridge ; Sarah MacDonald, conductor ; Claire Innes-Hopkins, organ (accompanied pieces) ; Daniel Cook, organ (solo repertoire).

Aleksander Szram‘s debut CD including Basil Athanasiadis' work for solo piano 'Anamnisis' in five movements. Inpired by Haruki Murakami's 'Norwegian Woods', this work evoces reminiscences of the narrator of the novel sparked by hearing a song on an aeroplane.

A  CD (February 2005) celebrating the spirit of dance in music for two pianos, performed by John McCabe and Tamami Honma. The programme ranges from a genuine ballet score (Agon, but in Stravinsky's own rarely-performed 2-piano version) to a brand-new work written especially for the programme by the Greek composer, Basil Athanasiadis, named after the ancient Greek muse of dancing and entitled Terpsichore Bemused. Other works include Copland's spirited Danzón Cubano, and Britten's gentle, melancholic Mazurka Elegiaca, dedicated to the memory of Paderewski. The programme is completed by a suite of three pieces entitled Balinese Ceremonial Music, from Colin McPhee's monumental research into gamelan music in Bali, and by John McCabe's own Basse Danse, in its original 2-piano version.

A DVD production featuring the dramatised performance of a setting of four traditional Japanese ko'uta poems (little songs) composed by Basil Athanasiadis, choreorgaphed and performed by Shie Shoji and directed by Shigeki Oita, filmed at the Kushiro Cultural Hall. The production was sponsored by the Daiwa Anglo-Japanese Foundation, the Sasakawa Foundation and the Canterbury Christ Church University. To obtain a copy please contact the composer.

Score publications

Despite their brevity and the lack of subjective sentimentalism, Japanese haiku are open to free interpretation through the creation of a multitude of personal associations of images, ideas and feelings. Such contradiction between the poems’ outlook and their interpretation creates a kind of dynamic tension. A similar technique is used in the design of Japanese gardens and landscaping where on a small scale the elements of the natural world were cleverly used to give the illusion of a greater outdoor space. This technique of compressing a vast landscape into a small space became known as “the great within the small”. Using this aesthetic idea as source of inspiration the work Eyes are now dim is a musical exploration of the macrocosm hidden in the haiku by Matsuo Bashõ.

For the Ice II, also sounding as For the Eyes Too alludes to the visual aspect of the work, composed as a dance piece for two female dancers. The structure of the work, is based on the Japanese dance Chu No Mai (literally meaning ‘moderate dance’).

As the original dance, the For the Ice II, is built upon the repetition of four fixed thematic sequences and four unique sequences (distant variants of the four repetitive ones). The discreet coexistence of development and non-development as well as the contrast in the instrumental function, not only refer to the polarisation of the Western and Eastern concepts of fixity and fluidity but also underpin the differences between the two stage characters impersonated by the two female dancers.

Dream of a Butterfly III is the third piece of a cycle of works composed primarily for the purpose of instrumental demonstration. Being neither too simple nor too complex, neither too subdued nor too brilliant, the work stands on an expressive threshold that does not seem to fit fully into either Western or Eastern aesthetic frameworks. Although the work was composed in order to demonstrate certain aspects of the expressive and virtuosic potential of the piano, its writing limits the required virtuosity to the absolutely necessary. The various passages are bare from any unnecessary frills. Here speed and brilliance are of secondary importance as they derive naturally from the inner interpretative necessity for a convincing atmosphere. That renders the Dream of a Butterfly III to a large extend purposeless, artless and hence closer to the true spirit of wabi-sabi.

In 2006 I composed the song cycle Little Songs of the Geisha based on four traditional ko’uta Japanese poems (literally meaning ‘little songs’). Seven years later and after becoming a little more familiar with the Japanese language, I decided to revisit the remaining ko’uta and create a new song cycle consisting of four songs. The original ko’uta were sung with the accompaniment of samisen and would not last more than three or four minutes. The poems often rich in pivot words or otherwise words with double meanings can be filled with erotic overtones as they were sung at the geisha world. One concept essential to the understanding of ko-uta is that of iroke. Consisting of two words, iro ‘colour’ and ke or ki ‘feeling’, express an aesthetic associated with sensuality, intimacy, subtlety and most importantly understatement.

The music setting attains in a free manner the spirit of elegant simplicity reflected in the poems without being programmatic. The last piece of the cycle, ‘Longing’, lasting just over nine minutes, breaks free from the idea of brevity and develops as an autonomous entity creating an intentional imbalance both structurally and stylistically as a means of creating an expressive tension.

What is most interesting about the Japanese haiku, is the simplicity of language. In fact, at times is so simple that even a little child can easily understand. Yet haiku are considered as masterpieces of refined expression.

Such aesthetic can without doubt have a great potential for contemporary music composition.

Air Still is a musical setting of two haiku by Kobayashi Issa and Matsuo Bashõ. The poems were originally suggested by my Japanese language teacher during my stay at Kushiro in Japan, a city famous for its most beautiful sunsets.

The music focuses on the imagery of stillness and floating clouds circling the setting sun very much reminiscent to what I experienced first-hand at Kushiro.

To the Touch is a musical setting for violin and shõ of a haiku by Kobayashi Issa composed as a pair to the work Air Still for female voice and shõ.

The music is a reflection on the stillness and movement of a scene of a falling dewdrop lit by the spring moon.

One of my favourite seasons in Japan is spring. Although the weather can be very changeable with plenty of rain spells and strong winds, it is also the time for the cherry blossom which I particularly love. During that season, entire areas in the countryside, parks, squares, river banks and streets in the heart of the city which throughout the year feel like ordinary spaces, for a short period of time transform into extraordinary spaces filled with living-art of ultimate beauty. The impact of this transformation becomes even more profound due to its brevity and changeability.

There is a word I once came across in the dictionary that I like which perhaps describes best the short-lived beauty of the cherry blossom. Belonging in the category of those peculiar words like wabi-sabi whose meaning cannot be accurately translated into English, utakata is a term that carries various meanings and connotations such as ‘bubbles on surface of liquid’ ‘ephemeral’ or ‘transient’. The short life-span and fragility of cherry blossom led me to associate it with the image of floating bubbles.

In the tea ceremony, the Japanese tea house interior even in the daytime the light in the room is subdued, for the low eaves of the slanting roof admit but few of the sun’s rays. The importance of appropriate lighting in the mood of the overall ceremony signifies the Japanese aesthetic yawaragi  (softness/quietness). Another important characteristic of yawaragi is the use of unobtrusive colours. In the formal tea ceremony, everything is sober in tint from the ceiling to the floor; the guests themselves have carefully chosen garments of unobtrusive colours.

In Soft Light, the instrumental treatment characterised by a non-virtuosic modesty, alludes to a timbral sobriety similar to that evident in the tea ceremony. The timbral resources employed here are limited to a minimum. Dynamics limited as they are within a ppp/pp and mp/mf framework create the impression of distance from the sound source in a similar manner as in the example of the diffused light filtered through the screens of the tea house. The subdued quality of sound is maintained even in the instances of louder dynamics as the dynamic peaks occur only momentarily quickly receding back to silence.

Pale Views was inspired by Kazuo Ishiguro’s first novel A Pale View of Hills. The music oscillates between tonality and chromaticism portraying the contrasting states of present and past, kindness and cruelty, tranquility and disturbance featured throughout the novel.

I composed Interrupted Dreams just after the birth of my son in Tokyo in Autumn 2010. At that time, life in the typical Japanese flat with a living space divided by means of sliding doors of minimal sound proofing, would hardly allow any concentration for composition. I recall I often watched my son when he was about to fall asleep. One thing I noticed was how easily his sleep would get disturbed by the minutest noise I would cause, in a similar way my composition was interrupted by my son’s crying for milk and attention. The acknowledgement of our mutually connected disturbance surprisingly allowed me not only to focus back to composition but also to transform the very reason of interruption and fragmentation into the main feature of the work. That explains the organisation of the musical material as a group of thematically unrelated brief segments of varied durations divided by rests. In a sense, the piece is a reflection on the importance of vital space ‘ma’ and the expressive potential of the wabi-sabi characteristics of incompleteness and fragmentation.

Fantasmata ('Ghosts' in Greek), is a work that explores the sound and rhythmic qualities of the Japanese language (i.e. heightened speech and chanting). The text, isolated words and short phrases taken from a short story The Mirror by the Japanese writer Haruki Murakami, is the generative power for the entire piece. Each word is associated with a unique music section, tailored around the intrinsic rhythmic and acoustic properties of the text. The resulting textual/musical organisation, despite its loose logical connection, shapes a notional thread unified under the archetypal ideas of surprise, anxiety, fear or relief. Thus, Fantasmata is not just a descriptive work about ghosts, but a personal game of fugitive associations, both textual and musical.

The recollections of my two visits to Lake Akan in Hokkaido and the last memory of Jonathan Harvey followed me to Tokyo where I moved 2013. I composed Aura in the small studio apartment where I lived, looking beyond the small shrine located just a few yards from my front window, imagining the open sky and calm surface of the water only slightly creased by the cool evening breeze.
Aura is dedicated to the memory of Jonathan Harvey.

A stray cat, a creature of an irregular life pattern and naturally nervous by character, can only sleep peacefully when tranquilised by the monotonous background sounds of the city. Using that imagery I thought of a piece of a modal, hypnotic character structured by juxtaposing irregular phrases. This work is dedicated to my sister Jenny and all the stray cats of my old neighbourhood in Tokyo.

The work’s source of inspiration is a haiku by Kitamura Kigin. The main influence is the idea that spoken words and thoughts don’t always correspond. Although thoughts can be continuous and coherent, speech can often be fragmented and incomplete. This juxtaposition is reflected in the organisation of the melodic material in sections where phrases are either interrupted by rests (first and third section) or flowing uninterrupted (middle section). Despite the contrast between sections, the work is characterised by a lack of strong dramatic or climactic gestures, an idea that is in keeping with the poem’s inward, self-contained character.

Youki was the first work I composed after moving to Kushiro, a city located at the Eastern Hokkaido (Northern Japan). Despite the fact that Kushiro is the fourth biggest city in Hokkaido, it is a fairly quiet and not that densely populated place. The quiet lifestyle combined with the sense of isolation due to the city’s location surrounded by the ocean and the biggest marshland in Japan, had a significant effect on the music I composed during that period.

The Dance of the Seven Veils is a music reflection on the way that veils of different texture and colour, move and interact with light. More precisely the work features seven types of movement and light attributes organised in short sections each featuring a different mood (‘stillness’, ‘slow swaying’, ‘regular swaying’, ‘irregular swaying’, ‘vivid movement’, ‘light through’ and ‘colourful’). These attributes are presented in an irregular order and often overlap to create a fluid continuity. The presence of number seven is also evident in the number of chosen instruments (2 vibraphones, 2 cymbals, 3 conga drums). Aesthetically, the work is part of a series of works featuring elements of Japanese aesthetics such as irregularity, quietness, unpredictability, non development and absence of logical coherence.

Jardin d’Iris is a setting of six Japanese haiku written by Basho and his followers all of which are linked through the common imagery of a garden. The work was originally composed at my wife’s request to accompany a staged performance of Kurtag’s song cycle Kafka-Fragmente. Although both works are inspired by the idea of ‘thought fragments’ – either in the form of diary texts written by Kafka or haiku poetry, Jardin d’Iris aims for a musical continuity achieved through techniques similar to those primarily employed in the Japanese renga poetry (linked poetry) where different poems are connected into a single unity by means of pivot devices. Therefore, unlike Kurtag’s work, where each textual unit, corresponds to an individual music movement, Jardin d’Iris features a single movement form where the borders of music and poetry sections are purposely blurred and misaligned.

As the sun sets and the shadows grow longer, the large tree in the back garden becomes less and less visible until only its dim silhouette can be seen. In complete darkness, its presence remains even though the last traces of its silhouette have all disappeared.

For the Ice is a work that integrates, to a certain extent, elements drawn from Chinese and Japanese music: the concept of ma (space between sound events), the use of homophony (as opposed to the counterpoint often employed in Western music), rhythmic disjunction between parts (described by William Malm as the 'sliding doors effect'), and the use of timbre. These elements function as mechanisms that reinforce the forward drive of
the music.

For the Ice is a work that integrates, to a certain extent, elements drawn from Chinese and Japanese music: the concept of ma (space between sound events), the use of homophony (as opposed to the counterpoint often employed in Western music), rhythmic disjunction between parts (described by William Malm as the 'sliding doors effect'), and the use of timbre. These elements function as mechanisms that reinforce the forward drive of
the music.

“I like this slow opening, it sound almost improvised” she said while staring on the CD pile scattered in front of her. “I need however something more energetic to follow, something like a promenade and I want rhythm but, not a regular pulse, with a probably bizarre ending which gradually gets more and more frenetic.
In ancient Greece, Terpsichore was the muse of dance, and nothing could be a better subject for a project involving two pianos and a female dancer inspired by John McCabe and Tamami Honma.
However what happens when the incarnation of inspiration gets confused?
I could see her movements which at first appeared noble and composed, dissolving into a frantic puppet-like dance that dominated her body and spirit and spurred the ecstatic goddess, personified by the Japanese dancer, to swirl, turn and jump till exhaustion took over her body bringing her transcendental ritual to an abrupt halt. When gazing at her stationary body lying on the floor in an embryo-like posture, I couldn’t help once again think of the ancient Greeks and their ideas about ecstasy as a symbol or spiritual and physical rebirth.

I composed Anamnisis (Greek for ‘memories’) after reading the Norwegian Wood by Haruki Murakami. The title recalls the way in which the narrator in the novel embarks on his tale of twenty years past only after his memory is sparked by hearing a song on an aeroplane. I tried to convey the sense of memory in Anamnisis by using the opening 5-note melody as a kind of recurrent yet ever varying leitmotif in the rest of the piece not to be heard, but to lend the work unity.

Whether a dream is a thought. Whether dreaming is thinking about something. Suppose you look on a dream as a kind of language. A way of saying something, or a way of symbolising something. There might be a regular symbolism, not necessarily alphabetical—it might be like Chinese, say. We might then find a way of translating this symbolism into the language or ordinary speech, ordinary thoughts. But then the translation ought to be possible both ways. It ought to be possible by employing the same technique to translate ordinary thoughts into dream language … obviously there are certain similarities with language … compare the question of why we dream and why we write stories. Not everything in the story is allegorical. What would be meant by trying to explain why he has written just that story in just that way? There is no one reason why people talk. A small child babbles often just for the pleasure of making noises. This is also one reason why adults talk. And there are countless others.

Ludwig Wittgenstein, Lectures and Conversations

The idea of the piece sprung from an excerpt for bass saxophone solo by the saxophonist and composer Daniel Kientzy, found in a small booklet accompanying Kientzy’s CD titled L’Art Du Saxophone. The original, listed under the name Harmonico Tuilage (harmonic overlaps), is a music example that demonstrates the saxophone’s ability to make smooth transitions between overtones of the harmonic series and the fundamental pitch. Surprisingly the timbral quality of the excerpt bore a striking similarity to the ethereal sonorities of the Japanese sho. As a result, the original music was set for saxophone and marimba, and further extended into what was later to be named Faded Shonorities II.

The Ivy and the Holly is a superb collection of carols and motets for Advent, Christmas, and Epiphany by contemporary composers. Scored for mixed voices - a cappella and with organ - the anthology embraces a range of styles and sonorities. Here are plainchant lines, lilting melodies, and overlapping phrases; lively, energetic settings and soft, reflective ones; dancing rhythms and rich, sumptuous harmonies. Encompassing a variety of texts, with settings of medieval English verse and biblical passages alongside poems by celebrated writers, this collection will be welcomed by concert and church choirs alike.

Table of Contents:

Kerry Andrew: The Contest of the Ivy and the Holly Basil Athanasiadis: Antiphon to Mary Alan Bullard: And all the stars looked down Richard Causton: Cradle Song Bob Chilcott: The Shepherd's Carol Michael Finnissy: Telling Gabriel Jackson: The Magi Cecilia McDowall: Now may we singen Terry Mann: Gabriel fram Hevene-King Joseph Phibbs: St Margaret's Carol Francis Pott: Mary's Carol John Rutter: Dormi, Jesu Howard Skempton: Rejoice, rejoice Andrew Smith: Veni, redemptor gentium

Knots II, for organ and violin, was composed for the United Music Publishers Organ Ensemble Prize at the Royal Academy of Music.  The concept of the piece was drawn from a poem by R.D. Laing, according to which, a steady state of mind is not possible since human behaviour is a reaction to everyday life or social interaction.  Therefore, as life is always in flux, human behaviour constantly changes in order to adjust and adapt to new circumstances.  Although these changes of mood follow some patterns, they can not be fully predicted since they are closely related to the stimulus that triggers them. Knots II, a reaction to the poem, has two sets of variations that reflect the opposing states of blissful serenity and restless confusion that can alternate at will in the human mind.  However, the term variation is used here in a rather general sense, as each piece is a reaction to the others of the same set and furthermore, each set of variations is a reaction to the other.  When shuffling the pieces in an almost random order, an irrational discontinuity can be achieved, while still maintaining a peculiar sense of a knotted unity.  Therefore, the eight pieces may be played in any order according to the performer’s preference.  The current order is just one possibility…